Manchester by the Sea

My friend is going to see Manchester by the Sea with her husband tomorrow and wants to know what I thought of it.

To echo Casey Affleck on Saturday Night Live recently, it is very sad. Very, very sad.

And I would add that there is no coming back from it.

What is this? A movie coming out at the holidays is supposed to entertain: and that usually means cute cartoon characters saying outrageous things to make us laugh, buildings, cities, countries, heck, whole worlds being blown up only to be saved by the superhuman hero or heroine.

So what is this movie? On the surface, it is as cold as Manchester looks in the winter shots. On the surface, it’s got nothing to feel good about, except that we get to see relationships working out the way they do in real life, without the neat tie-up of a happy ending, where the main character finds the path to true happiness. This guy Lee, played impeccably by Casey Affleck, can no longer even suspect that there is anything like happiness to be had and maybe that is how it needs to be for him.

I wondered what I would say to my friend. I know she could appreciate the artistry in this movie, but I don’t think she would appreciate that feeling good about what it is to be human, sometimes means confronting the truth about our lives, and that doesn’t feel good at all, except at an elemental level.

I also wondered when I would stop thinking about this movie. About how slow it went, about how devastating Affleck’s performance was, only to be stopped cold by a scene with Michelle Williams, who topped Lee’s devastation with her character’s own. The movie is worth seeing for that scene alone.

But would my friend and her husband like the slowness and the time it takes unfolding, detail by detail, details brought to enrich the movie by the director, Kenneth Lonergan? It looks and feels beautiful and mesmerizing and devastating. I thought about it a lot, far into the night so that I’m not sure what was dreaming and what was thinking.

Is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? Did I even like it? That seems beside the point. It is its own world, its own art. It just is and it is an experience all to itself. When I woke up for real and had a cup of coffee, still thinking about it, I realized what was happening. It was something I read about, the collective unconscious from Jung. We unconsciously share in the human experience and we inherit those experiences unconsciously. It’s why we seem to be born, not cavemen any longer, but with more refined sensibilities brought about by generations of shared experiences. There is something elemental about what we see and feel in this movie, something that goes deeper the lighthearted feel-good stuff as in It’s a Wonderful Life. There is plenty that we can feel – if not good feelings that everything will be okay, then at least the reassurance that there is a resilience to the human experience that is passed down. We get Lee because he is a refinement of past human wreckage and desolation that we all have inherited.

I’m going to tell my friend, “If you need to see the usual lighthearted, feel-good holiday movie, don’t see Manchester by the Sea. It will haunt you.”

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The Force? Really?

The biggest opening ever! Billions of dollars made! Sensational!

So, should you see it?

There was a time, long, long ago, when I went to a new movie by myself, a matinee where I was one of only a handful of people. The geeks upstairs where I worked – you know,  those guys (no girls yet) who sat before little screens and large keyboards typing and joking away, doing who-knows-what, doing something the rest of us could only guess at – said in annoyingly knowing ways, “You HAVE to see this movie, Man!”

So I went. The movie was just opening. No reviews yet. No word-of-mouth. The movie was just opening. I went in and sat right in the middle of the theater. There were a few other brave souls scattered around. The movie began, with the opening screen:  words scrolling into the infinity of the stars over a dark background, setting the mood, telling us what we needed to know: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

I remember my jaw dropping and muttering something like, “Oh sh@*t!” Who had ever seen anything like it? And the movie hadn’t really started yet.

It only got better from there. There was a genuine plot. Interesting and unusual characters. Battles that were technologically better than anything I had seen. Genuine struggle between good and evil with a slight blurring of the two as to make it interesting and dramatic, though I would bet everyone in that theater and at subsequent screenings when Star Wars played to packed houses, that we were against the dark side and on the light side where the Force could make good things happen if we only used it.

So yesterday, 40 years later, I went to a matinee screening of a similar movie that was packed to the gills with people. I don’t know many geeks anymore, so there was only the product tie-ins on television and the buzz on the internet to inform me that this was going to be a BIG opening. It was. Big.

Why should you see Star Wars: The Force Awakens? After all those prequels and sequels to the original, that to me, were just ho-hum?

What’s the buzz?

Reasons to see it:

  1. Meet old movie friends who grew old just as you did. (You had to have seen the original to appreciate this point.)
  2. Characters are still multi-dimensional and exotic and interesting. Even the robots are wonderful.
  3. All sorts of objectionable language was mercifully absent.
  4. More father/son stuff explored, with a healthy dollop of mother thrown in.
  5. A woman embodies the Force that is awakening.
  6. Women in power (tempered with the bad guys still being men.)
  7. The Force is something that people can interpret according to their own experiences. For instance, I see Zen lurking in the background of the Force, a kind of balance in the Universe.

Why not to see it:

  1. Lots of things get blown to bits. How many movies have we seen where we think, “Lay off the explosives and get back to the plot!”?
  2. For you, science fiction isn’t your cup of tea.
  3. I can’t think of any other reason not to see it.
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Movies I Saw Over my Winter Vacation

I saw three movies in over the holiday: Lincoln, Les Misérables, and Jack Reacher. Guess which one I liked best?

I’m all about theatre so you would have to guess Les Miz. Best musical ever, revivals everywhere, seriousness of the theme that poverty maims or kills the soul as well as the body is good stuff (though I’m not sure that theme came through). Great acting and singing parts. Great opportunity for ensemble work.

But I also appreciate acting performances and a script written by a playwright and theatre person (Tony Kushner), from a book written by a modern and articulate historian (Doris Kearns Goodwin), direction by a movie great (Steven Spielberg), and another superb performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Not to mention a great theme: emancipation, which took this nation out of spiritual damnation. So you’d have to guess I liked Lincoln best.

Jack Reacher is about a character from one of my very favorite authors, Lee Child, and is an adventure series of an ex-army guy violently righting the wrongs across the country. Tom Cruise is a fine actor in his own right, but I don’t necessarily go gaga over him. Plus, he’s kinda short to play the giant that I imagine Reacher to be. Plus, I read the book this movie was based on and knew what would happen, and still I was enthralled. What got my attention was watching the very poignant reactions of Rosamund Pike who have an arsenal of subtle and unusual reaction. I also had fun watching Robert Duvall having fun playing an old gunny trying to relive his glory days. And watching Werner Herzog playing one of the creepiest villains in all of moviedom.

So which one did I thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end? No, not Les Miz. I’d give Les Miz a ‘B’ overall for music, casting, plot, seriousness of purpose– except for the brilliant work by Anne Hathaway as Fantine (beyond A+).

I give Lincoln a ‘B’ for pure entertainment value. It was sooo earnest and the subject, the passing of the thirteenth amendment was serious stuff. The scenes all seemed the same length and seriousness (thank goodness for James Spader who had the nerve to have fun with his part in this most serious of movies) an ‘A’ for the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Fields, David Strathairn, and even Joseph Gordon-Levit for bringing the screen to life by just making an entrance. And ‘A’ for seriousness of purpose. It was a good lesson of how hard it has always been to convince political parties to act in the interests of the people. With the brutal Civil Was raging behind all the debate, it was excruciating to see what it took to convince people to do the right thing and make this a country that would ban slavery forever. It all came to life, especially watching the toll the Civil War took on everyone, seeing battlefields covered with dead men.

Yes, folks! The old drama teacher has completely lost it. It was Jack Reacher I liked best. It was the book, the screenplay, the depth of character and physicality that Tom Cruise managed in spite of his real life persona and short stature. Tall, he may not be, (Reacher, I believe, is described as 6’8”) but he is handsome and yes, I laughed, as another critic did, when Rosamund Pike told him to put on his shirt in one scene. There was a delicious moment, reminiscent of Hitchcock movies, when I howled and pointed to the screen. There was the author himself, Lee Child, in a tiny cameo appearance, Hitchcock-like,* sitting behind a desk.

And I loved Rosamund Pike and the constant close-ups of her acting and reacting, subtle and mesmerizing. Like Jennifer Lawrence, Pike does so much with small, telling movements that bring a world of meaning and emotion that words only begin to describe. Remember acting students: When on stage go big; when on camera, go subtle.

Just because I liked Jack Reacher best, did that make it the best movie? Not really. It just made it the movie I had the most fun at. Artistically, I would have to give Best Movie to Lincoln. It was outstanding. (This post is just my review: what I liked. A critical review of these movies is for another post.)


*Alfred Hitchcock, the movie director of another era, appeared in many of his movies and those in-the-know had fun looking out for him.


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